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Dr. Doug’s Top 10: Mentally Activating Your Nervous System

This week’s “Best Of” is on how to get your frontal lobes and autonomic nerve system fired up. In this post, you’ll find some practical approaches to keeping your mind sharp and your stress down – two pretty important things to focus on, as we start into the holiday season and deep throes of winter (hey, don’t shoot the messenger!).

Read Dr. Doug's Post on Mentally Activating Your Nervous System

 

Yours in Health,

Care Chiropractic
Lafayette, Indiana

The last several weeks, we have been exploring practical ways to activate your nervous system, both physically and mentally. This is part of a larger series we started on practical and reasonable ways to regain and retain overall health.

This week, we are going to conclude this section and the entire series by talking about how to reduce physical stress on the nerve system. Who couldn’t use a little less stress in their lives?

Step 1: Stop Doing That!

I have been a chiropractor for 30 years (wow!) and have seen a lot of concepts in healthcare and healing that come and go, but one concept especially in the field of pain management is:

“If it hurts, stop doing that!”

I know it’s common sense, but how many times do we continue to do the things that produce pain? Pain is your body’s (and really your nervous system’s) way of saying it is being damaged. Continuing to go down the path that produces pain almost always causes tissue damage and fibrosis (scar tissue). Neurological research has also brought out the concept of Central Sensitization.

Central Sensitization is where an insult to the body (and therefore peripheral nervous system) sometimes causes a change in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) that allows pain to remain, even after the initial injury has healed.

This can result in even mild stimulus (usually poor movement patterns, posture, or loading of the muscles and joints) producing a higher than expected pain response. Research is not clear on why this happens to some people but not others, however continuing to “poke the proverbial lion” usually results in a continuation of the problem. Experts differ on the best way to deal with Central Sensitization; however, most would agree that continuing to provoke stresses and strains across the nervous system is not a good idea. I would go one step further and ask, why would you want to place yourself in situations that might compromise your nervous system in the first place?

Unwinding Pain (and Reducing Physical Stress on the Nervous System)

One of my favorite authors on spinal mechanics and treating painful backs is Stuart McGill, Ph.D. McGill is a Canadian researcher who devoted the bulk of his career researching the science behind how to help people address their back pain through posture and exercise. One of the concepts he promotes is: Winding Down Pain.

Winding down pain has several components. The first is to avoid the “triggers” that aggravate you in the first place. This sounds pretty simple, but the truth is, there can be hidden triggers for pain and nervous system stress in daily life that don’t automatically give us a signal that they are doing harm. This can occur when our posture is less than ideal. McGill’s approach aims to prevent this by a method he calls “Stacking.” Stacking is when you line up the large centers of mass (head, rib-cage, pelvis) over each other in order to not stress the sensitive soft tissues (nerves, ligaments and discs, muscles). We are going to explore three of them in this post:

  1. Sitting
  2. Standing
  3. Bending & Lifting
  4. Stacking While Walking

 

Seated Stacking

Sit on a firm chair, feet on the ground, (if your feet don’t touch, get a block or box). Your lower back should reach the back of the chair and maintain a slight forward bend. If not, roll a small towel and slide it behind you. Your head should be over your shoulders and your eyes looking straight ahead. Anything you are watching or reading needs to accommodate this posture.

Standing Stacking

Knees should be unlocked. Maintain a slight, but not exaggerated lower back curve with your rib cage over your pelvis and your head over your rib cage. Don’t allow your rib cage and head to flex forward over your pelvis. Place your hands behind the small of your back.

Stacking While Bending and Lifting

Keep your head over your rib cage and your rib cage over your pelvis. Bend/pivot around your HIPS, not your lower back!

Stacking While Walking

Don’t let your chin poke out and lead you – look up and forward. Walk fast enough that your arms naturally start to swing.  This will engage your core muscles and keep you upright.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

Some of you may have gotten to this point in the post and thought: “Is that it?” Did you just boil down how to not irritate your nervous system by doing two things:

  1. If something is irritating, stop doing it.
  2. Maintain proper posture.

I know, it isn’t very sexy, is it? But I can tell you that if all of my patients over the last thirty years practiced these two simple principles, I would be doing about 90% wellness visits and 10% pain-based visits! Sometimes, it really is the simple things. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes you have to get to the point where you are able to do the simple things, but once your system is doing well, you can keep it that way by just not irritating it!

We are here for you if you are broken and need to get back to neutral, but if you are feeling pretty good, start practicing the things we have outlined in this series of articles on the nervous system and you will need us for pain a lot less!

Yours in Health,

Care Chiropractic
Lafayette, Indiana

Mentally Activating Your Nervous System

Welcome to this week’s blog. Recently, we have been going over ways to nourish the nervous system:

  1. Physical Activation
  2. Mental Activation
  3. Reducing Mechanical Distortion

Last week, we covered the first one: Physically activating/nourishing the nerve system.

This week, we are going to cover some ways to mentally nourish your nerve system, specifically:

  • The Autonomic 
  • The Frontal Lobes of the Brain

Why Deal With The Autonomic Nerve System?

If you recall, the autonomic portion of our nervous system is responsible for all of the “automatic” aspects of our body, things like breathing, heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, digestion, etc.

It is broken down into two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. You might recall learning about this in school as the fight or flight response. Essentially, the sympathetic portion is responsible for amping things up when we perceive or are exposed to danger, and the parasympathetic’s job is to calm things down once we are safe.

The problem is when the sympathetic system stays on all the time; this is called sympathetic dominance. If this is allowed to continue, a lot of things begin to breakdown. As a result, you are left vulnerable to everything from digestive issues to high blood pressure! The stresses and strains of today’s fast paced high drive society can invite this all too easily. Getting the autonomic nerve system back in sync can literally be life saving.

This One Is Easy!

Thankfully, activating your parasympathetic nervous system (and automatically deactivating your sympathetic system and thus reducing sympathetic dominance) is just a breath away!

Deep breathing practices have been around for a long time and most of us, at one point or another, have been on the receiving end of the phrase “just take a breath.” There is something intuitive, calming, and healthy about slowing down our breathing. Here is a great article on the topic from the University of Washington Medicine.

The bottom line from the author on how to start is this:

  • Breathe from your stomach, pushing your stomach out each time you inhale.
  • Take longer breaths, counting to at least three for each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Keep doing this, even though it may feel uncomfortable at first. After a while, you will start to notice your body feeling more relaxed.
  • Noticing the differences for yourself in how your body feels is more powerful than anyone describing it to you.

At a minimum, try this approach when you are feeling stressed. To really make it work for you, find a time or two daily to practice this, regardless of how you are feeling at the moment. Your heart and many other systems will thank you!

Why Deal With The Frontal Lobes?

The frontal lobes are the area in the front of your brain that are responsible for what is called “executive function.” Executive function, in a nutshell, allows you to “get things done.” According to Web MD, executive function lets you:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience
  • Multitask

When it goes wrong, it can impact your ability to:

  • Work or go to school
  • Do things independently
  • Maintain relationships

A breakdown of the frontal lobes, and therefore executive function, can be seen in disease states (post stroke, Alzheimer’s) and in some diagnosed conditions like ADD. I personally believe that it can be lost or diminished due to  the overwhelming pace of modern life (see the recent post on Margin), and the over-stimulation and reliance on electronic devices.

This One Takes A Little Work!

 The science and research on what it takes to keep the brain healthy and functioning is still young, and undoubtedly will change and grow as time goes on. However, like we discussed in earlier posts, the nervous system is a learning machine. It likes novelty and interaction, and, like the muscles, it can grow and strengthen with use or atrophy when ignored.

Here is a list of things to begin to incorporate into your life, in order to stimulate your frontal lobes and executive function:

  • Listen to music
  • Read a paper book (non-tablet)
  • Listen for double meanings, puns, and jokes
  • Summarize, or give the gist of, an article you read to someone else
  • Meet new people
  • Go to an art museum
  • Do mazes, word searches, cross-word puzzles, and Sudoku
  • Write (not type) a letter
  • Draw
  • Look for patterns in architecture, pictures, sentences
  • Spelling lists
  • Go through family photos and name people
  • Make up and tell stories
  • Memorize a poem, passage of scripture or funny story
  • Play board games (not computer) and card games
  • Take a class
  • Take a different route to work, the grocery store or church
  • Do math in your head
  • Learn a new language or instrument
  • Go someplace new, and when you get home draw a map of how you got there or the “layout” of the location

I hope you have been enjoying this series on getting back to basics on building a healthy lifestyle. Next time, we will conclude it with how to reduce mechanical stress on the nerve system.

Yours in Health,

Care Chiropractic
Lafayette, Indiana

By Dr. Doug Williams
April 16, 2019

Last week, we talked about three ways to nourish the nervous system:

  1. Physical Activation
  2. Mental Activation
  3. Reducing Mechanical Distortion

This week, we are going to concentrate specifically on Physical Activation.

Physically Activating the Nervous System is Progressive

One of the most amazing things about the nervous system, and our body in general, is that if it is de-conditioned, it doesn’t take much stimulus to effect a change! That’s good news if yours has been down for awhile, whether from injury or life just getting in the way.

IF YOU HAVEN’T BE DOING MUCH, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS SOMETHING!


Go out and take a walk, go an extra lap at the grocery store, or throw the ball for the dog at the park. It will start to turn things on in your brain. As you become more comfortable with activity itself, progress to incorporate more specific stimulus.

The Nerve System Likes Timing

One of the major players in the central nerve system (brain and spinal cord) is the cerebellum. Originally, the cerebellum was thought to only modify movement. As research progressed, its role in timing was discovered: the cerebellum is what allows you to “keep time or a beat” catch a ball or dance effectively.

What has come to the forefront recently is the role the cerebellum plays in organizing thought, memory, and learning. In some cases, it has been dubbed a Supervised Learning Machine. The implications of this are huge. It is possible that activating the cerebellum (which is best done by physical activity) may help such diverse conditions as ADHD and Dementia.

How do you involve the cerebellum in exercise?

  • Playing Catch
  • Bouncing a Ball
  • Skipping and Hopping, 
  • Balancing on one foot
  • Marching in place
  • Aiming (throwing darts, playing pool, golf) 
  • Skipping rope
  • Walking/running
  • Tennis / pickle-ball / ping-pong

The Nerve System Likes Variety!

The fact that our nervous systems really are “learning machines” is both good and bad. You really don’t want to have to re-learn how to walk everyday – that would really slow life down! On the other hand, when we have really grooved a pattern or motion, it loses its ability to stimulate and activate our nerve system effectively and our return on investment for the time we spend exercising is diminished.

There are several ways to combat this:

  1. Periodization
  2. Progression

Periodization is a concept found in athletics. Rather than training the same way year-round, you cycle your training in order to keep your system from growing stagnant. There is a nice article on this by the American Council on Exercise.

Progression is pretty much what you would think: going from easy to hard, or simple to complex. It is applied for the same reason: to keep your system fresh and capable of growing!

Let’s look at an example of applying these two concepts to a nervous system exercise like walking: You start out in March with a walking program since you haven’t really done much over the winter. Walking is good because it is easy to progress, rhythmic, and can be done just about anywhere.

March / April: You start walking around your neighborhood for 20 minutes every other evening 3-5 times per week at an easy pace.

May /June: The weather is getting nicer so you increase your walking to 30 minutes and try to hit 6 days per week still at a moderate pace.

July / August: It is starting to get hot and you are getting a little tired of the routine, so you switch to walking every other day (3 days per week) for 30 minutes, but now you really push the pace by alternating a really fast pace, while passing three houses, followed by a moderate pace for three houses.

September / October: It is starting to cool off and the trees are beautiful. You keep the 3x/week interval sessions you did during the summer, but you add in an hour-long walk on weekends at Happy Hollow Park (hills!) at a moderate pace.

November / December: You plan on doing a 5K Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving, so you sign up and talk your spouse or a friend into doing it with you. You know you are going to eat more in December, so you make a pact with your spouse or friend that you will walk six days a week through December for at least 20 minutes and keep doing Happy Hollow on weekends up until Christmas.

January / February: It is cold and icy outside, but the mall is empty, so you try to hit the mall 3x/week for 30 minutes and get back to the interval training (walk fast past Cinnabon, moderate pace past GNC).

GO YOU!


You just completed a year of stimulating your nervous system! Throw in other things like golf, Frisbee, shooting a basketball, or playing catch with the kids/grandkids, and you are well on your way to activating the nervous system year-round.

Dr. Sue Activating Her Nervous System and Living The Final Four Dream!

There are infinite ways to physically activate your nervous system. The most important thing is to just go ahead and get out and do it! Don’t wait, head out the door after reading this blog post, even for just 5 minutes, you won’t be sorry!

Next week, we will talk about the value of mentally activating your nervous system and some practical ways to incorporate it into your daily life.

Yours in Health,

Care Chiropractic
Lafayette, Indiana

By Dr. Doug Williams
February 08, 2017
Category: Frailty
Tags: exercise   frailty   nervous system  
 
The Nervous System Lies at the Hub of Frailty

We have been working through a series on Frailty, essentially what happens to our bodies as we age. This material is important for several reasons, not the least of which is, because it is going to affect all of us, if we live long enough, and knowing what is coming can be comforting on some level.

However, more than that, I believe that understanding how we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" allows us to not only appreciate what we have been given in our bodies, but also inspires us to take the best care possible of them.

With that in mind, we have been going over what happens to us over time, but also how to positively impact it. The Nervous System literally and figuratively lies at the center of our life and, ultimately, death.

Components of the Nervous System
 
The Nervous System is structurally broken down into two parts:
  1. Central Nervous System, which is composed of the brain, spinal cord and nerve roots
  2. Peripheral Nervous System, which is composed of the nerves once they leave the spinal cord
The Nervous System is functionally composed of about a million different parts! Okay, maybe not a million, but way more than I am prepared to cover in this material.
 
The most useful model for the functional aspect of the Nervous System is to think of it as a great big feedback mechanism.

It is constantly seeking information through our senses on things like: gravity, position, resistance, stability, sound, smell, sight, temperature, feel, etc., and relaying this to the brain in order for the brain decide what it wants to do next.
 
 
Think of Your Nervous System Like a Submarine
 
Submarines are known for operating on sonar - essentially, making a sound, waiting for the sound wave to bounce off something and return back to the sender. The submarine then could make a decision on whether or not it wanted to go in this direction or that. This is often called pinging.

Pinging is what your nervous system is doing all day long, searching out information from the periphery, relaying it to the brain, deciding what, if anything, to do about what it has found out and then taking action.

Going up a flight of stairs? Your eyes gauge the height of the stairs, your foot tells you if the surface is smooth like wood or has resistance like carpet, your heart rate and blood pressure increase (via messages from the nervous system) as you ascend and relay information to the brain in order to make a decision if you need to stop and rest halfway up or not.

Most of this happens automatically without you thinking about it... until it doesn't! Then, you have a problem - you might slip, stumble and fall, or catch yourself.

The interesting thing is that failures in the feedback mechanism happen at both ends of the age spectrum - a 2-year old learning to negotiate the stairs has some of the same issues as an 82-year old might - and for the same reason: The Nervous System is Not Completely Plugged In!

Often times, our physical "Pinging and Processing" can parallel our cognitive (ability to think and reason) "Pinging and Processing." In other words, our brains can slow to match our bodies!

This presents some very interesting possibilities. For instance, if you train the body, will the brain follow suit?
 
 
Train the Body, Train the Brain!
 
An interesting study published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) in 2004 looked at over 18,000 women between the ages of 70-81 and their activity levels, specifically walking. The study found that, not only was there a 20% difference in cognitive function (brain activation), but that their cognitive function was related, in part, on a dose basis: the more active they were, the better off they were!

This is only one of many articles you can find on physical activity and the role it plays in keeping the brain healthy. Really, keeping the brain healthy is a reciprocal action, just like our sonar example from the submarine. The more information you can process, the more likely you are to get up and process it; rinse and repeat!

Another article published in JAMA in 2008 studied elderly individuals with memory issues but had not met the criteria for Alzheimer's. 138 people completed this study that split the group into two: half did what was considered an "educational and usual care program" and the other half did a "24 week at-home physical activity program." The "educational and usual care program" showed deterioration over the study time - they actually lost ground. In contrast, the "at-home physical activity group" not only didn't lose ground, but they showed improvement!

Components of accessing the nervous system for frailty include:
  • Gait: how well and how much you can walk
  • Balance: a measure of strength and coordination
  • Strength: a measure of how well you recruit your muscles to do a task; this can be a quantity and quality issue
Doesn't that sound a lot like exercise? It sure does to me! Once again, we find ourselves back at the basic premise that we were born to move and, when we stop moving, we stop living (maybe not all at once, but progressively, in both body and mind)!

Training movement has a lot of components, but at the heart of it is this concept:

GET UP AND DO SOMETHING... ANYTHING!
 
A good place to start would be our blog series on getting out of a chair. It has some simple step-by-step exercises for strengthening your glutes, the biggest muscles in your body.
 
Whew! Well, I hope you have gotten something out of our series on Frailty. Next week, we will wrap it up and pull everything together. The last portion of the theory on Frailty is called Integrative, I think you will like it!

Until then,
Get Up and Do Something!

Doug Williams, D.C.
Care Chiropractic
Lafayette, Indiana

PS: Don't forget to visit our new blog page at Doug Williams, DC - there is lots of great stuff to explore!